The smaller diamond at Alexandria’s Eugene Simpson Stadium Park — Little Simpson, to locals — attracted a reported 4,000 people when it opened for the city’s Little Major Leaguers in 1953. The field’s dimensions were laid out by the head groundskeeper at Griffith Stadium, courtesy of then-Nats president Clark Griffith. The diamond had a $9,500 lighting system, attracted major leaguers like Bob Feller and Mickey Vernon, and was, according to The Washington Post, “one of the best Little League stadiums in the Nation.”
That success helped spur the renovation of the adjoining larger diamond, Big Simpson. And together, those fields attracted generations of Alexandria ballplayers; “any kid who’s ever played any kind of baseball in Alexandria has played baseball on those fields, there’s no question about it,” Tom McHugh, president of the Alexandria Sportsman’s Club, said.
That was also the field where a gunman targeted lawmakers practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game last week, seriously wounding House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), leaving bullet holes in dugouts, bleachers and fences and splashing images of Big Simpson on every news show in the country. The subsequent investigation turned the field into a crime scene for much of last week, until a place that has hosted youth baseball games for more than 60 years was ready to host them again.
But “you can’t just go out and start playing ball again as if nothing happened,” said Gus Chiarello, the president of Alexandria Little League.
Thus arrived Tuesday night’s “Take Back Simpson Park,” an event conceived to welcome back baseball to this Del Ray community but that soon grew to something grander. There were dozens of representatives from the Alexandria police, sheriff and fire departments, dozens of kids in uniform from local teams that weren’t even playing and hundreds of community members. There was a speech from the mayor, emailed thoughts from the president of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and pregame remarks from Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the manager of the Republican baseball team, who offered a chilling narrative of last week’s violence.
Not exactly typical pregame Little League stuff, and that’s without mentioning those television cameras up the third base line.
“I can’t tell you how it warms my heart to drive up and see people and Little League teams and families, and not crime-scene tape and the FBI and all the law enforcement,” Barton told the crowd.
That was a familiar thought, from people who regard this place as something more than dirt and grass. You can talk about transient Washington all you like, but here came one adult after another with stories of how they had spent their own childhoods on these fields, how they now send their children here three or four times a week, how this was the homey park for their homey neighborhood.
“To have it happen here was devastating,” said Chris Mackay, a Little League parent and Del Ray resident who grew up playing at Simpson. “And to try to explain it to your 10-year-old and 13-year-old was very, very difficult. My youngest asked, ‘Why would someone do that?’ And you have to explain, people do crazy things.”
“It’s hard to wrap your head around it,” John Kelly, another parent, said. “I hope for the kids this is just a release of emotion, to say we all know what happened here but the field is still here, it’s still the same, it’s going to serve the same purpose that it’s always served.”
And those kids, needless to say, will lug memories of their ballfield into adulthood. Like Sam Navarro, who played Little League on both fields, starred at Big Simpson when he attended T.C. Williams (the high school plays its home games here) and was named one of the two best players in the complex’s first 50 years. He talked of neighborhood parents stopping by these fields even when their children weren’t playing, of teammates coming to watch early games and staying to watch late ones. It was the first place he played with a real scoreboard, the first place someone announced his name, the first place he played under lights.
“It’s a big deal to kids, and that’s why everybody has such fond memories of the field,” he said.
Then there was Alexandria’s elected sheriff, Dana Lawhorne, who has lived his entire life within 10 blocks of the park. In his last moment as a player at Big Simpson, he dropped a flyball that allowed the winning run to score; the sheriff can show you exactly where on his face that ball landed. And like so many people in Tuesday night’s crowd, Lawhorne still comes through the park just about daily, sitting in the bleachers to return phone calls and emails and to think about games held a half-century ago.
“It’s something that seems sacred,” he said. “It just makes you cry to even think that a place you come to for reflection about better times has now been affected by a tragedy.”
But if the adults were rattled, many of their children were not. The kids were not worried about lining up neatly in front of the television cameras, and about taking batting practice, and about getting back on their field. They were thinking about the games.
“It was serious and it was terrifying for a lot people,” said 13-year-old Campbell Plishker, “but I’m just glad it’s reopened and we can play baseball again.”
“It shouldn’t affect the way we feel here,” said 13-year-old Jack Kelly, who — like seemingly everyone else in Del Ray — is at the park three or four times a week. “I think we should all stick together and just keep having fun.”
So when the politicians and television cameras cleared off the field, and the pregame prayer about lost innocence and senseless violence was over, and the special T-shirts (“Alexandria is our city; Simpson is our home”) were removed, there was baseball again, at both Little Simpson and its now-famous sibling. There were hot dogs and Blow Pops, dogs and clapping parents, pop-ups and strikeouts, singles that turned into Little League triples and kids pounding on each others’ helmets. The only warnings concerned errant foul balls, and if you ignored the flowers on both dugouts and the hand-drawn posters on the bleachers, it was just another normal night of baseball at a place that has seen thousands of them.
Chiarello, the league’s president, grew up in Cooperstown; Del Ray isn’t exactly the same, but something still felt different when the field was shuttered. The game, at this place, “just kind of gives this sense of constancy to our life here,” he said.
“Baseball is a way to escape, baseball or almost any sport,” added Mackay, the parent who has spent so much of his life at those fields. “There’s something about baseball that makes things seem okay somehow.”